No, Franzen- Climate Change is Real but We are Not Literally Doomed

Jonathan Franzen, a fiction novelist best known for making everyone, even Oprah, very angry, has once again stirred up a storm with his provocative Sunday article in the New Yorker that states,” Climate change is unstoppable, and anyone who believes otherwise is fooling themselves. The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it”.

His gloomy set up goes on to say, “The scientific evidence verges on irrefutable. If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilization of life on earth—massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.”

As expected, many people including scientists opposed his point of view who believe humans are not doomed irrespective of what Jonathan Franzen says.

Kate Marvel , a climate scientist at Columbia University and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, says,” We could be, of course, if we decided we really wanted to. We have had the potential for total annihilation since 1945, and the capacity for localized mayhem for as long as societies have existed. Climate change offers the easy choice of a slow destruction through inaction like the proverbial frog in the slowly boiling pot. And there are times when the certainty of inevitability seems comforting. Fighting is exhausting; fighting when victory seems uncertain or unlikely even more so. It’s tempting to retreat to a special place—a cozy nook, a mountaintop, a summer garden—wait for the apocalypse to run its course and hope it will be gentle”.

She adds that science offers something close to certainty on many heads, but on doom, it is ambiguous. The definitive things we can confirm are rooted in basic physics and clear measurements. The molecular structure of carbon dioxide implies it can absorb the heat radiated by the planet. Carbon dioxide is the unavoidable byproduct of combustion. Combustion by setting fire to fossilized plants and animals to liberate the never-used energy stored is a convenient way to drive an industrial society. Adding a heat-trapping gas to the atmosphere makes it even hotter. We have already done this and we are not slowing down.

Marvel comments, “ Humans have emitted more carbon dioxide during my lifetime than in all the years of civilization that came before. We are as confident as science ever allows us to be in some of the dangers in a warmer world.  As the average temperature warms, the abnormal becomes the new normal, and the new abnormal become unprecedented. Heatwaves grow more frequent and severe. We know, too, that warmer air holds more water vapor, and heavy downpours increase. Hurricanes feed off warmer sea surface temperatures. We are less confident but have reason to fear that droughts will become more severe and frequent, that fires will rage uncontrollably, and that the sea could swallow our coastal cities”.

All of these factors get magnified as the temperature increases, but if there is a sharp disruption, Marvel says, it will not come at a degree and a half or two degrees. According to her, degrees are a human construct to measure and record differences and changes. As nature does not think in Fahrenheit or Celsius, so the sharp break will be different. When we cross the 2° limit, as we certainly will without any immediate action, we will get no warning sign. Life will carry on much as before. She says a frog in the pot can ignore an alarm and carry on boiling because it is not in the nature of frogs to heed such warning signs.

Of course, there are feedback processes that need consideration.

Marvel says, “Things change on a warmer world, and these changes can in turn warm the world, which changes things, and on and on in a vicious spiral toward unimaginable danger. But these feedbacks are not suddenly switched on at an arbitrary time. They are currently in operation, humming menacingly in the background. Most of them are not nasty surprises but unwelcome, persistent visitors, working in tandem to create the changes we live through in the present. The Arctic has lost more than a million square miles of sea ice in my lifetime. The loss of this reflective cover exposes absorbent ground below, warming the planet even more. This is a feedback. It is not a surprise”.

But she says this does not mean that there are no unexpected pitfalls on a warmer planet or no sudden shocks that could push us swiftly, like confused science-fictional explorers, on a functionally different planet.

She predicts there are nasty surprises ahead and says, “There are known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, and a whole spectrum of terrifying variations on half-known processes at work in the present. The risk of something terrible increases with the concentration of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere”.

But she is certain that “It is precisely the fact that we understand the potential driver of doom that changes it from a foregone conclusion to a choice, a terrible outcome in the universe of all possible futures. I run models through my brain; I check them with the calculations I do on a computer. This is not optimism, or even hope. Even in the best of all possible worlds, I cannot offer the certainty of safety. Doom is a possibility; it may that we have already awakened a sleeping monster that will in the end devour the world. It may be that the very fact of human nature, whatever that is, forecloses any possibility of concerted action”.

Marvel concludes, “But I am a scientist, which means I believe in miracles. I live on one. We are improbable life on a perfect planet. No other place in the Universe has nooks or perfect mountaintops or small and beautiful gardens. A flower in a garden is an exquisite thing, rooted in soil formed from old rocks broken by weather. It breathes in sunlight and carbon dioxide and conjures its food as if by magic. For the flower to exist, a confluence of extraordinary things must happen. It needs land and air and light and water, all in the right proportion, and all at the right time. Pick it, isolate it, and watch it wither. Flowers, like people, cannot grow alone”.

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